Sunday, December 6, 2009

What is a "vegan," anyway?

I'm settling into my plan a little better after several weeks of big talk about being a vegan. That big talk comes from a very righteous place in my heart that I do not expect will ever change. However, I'm not sure that I will ever be comfortable calling myself a vegan. My discomfort does not come from second thoughts about a desire to exclude animal products from my life, but from a self-consciousness and self-doubt about my ability to fully commit to the ideas and principles of what I perceive as true veganism.

I arrived at this conclusion after alot of thought and a little digging around. I figured I should start by trying to figure out if my perception of true veganism was accurate.

Apparently, the word "vegan" came from the imagination of a man named Donald Watson in 1944. He was looking for a word to define his decision to be a "non-dairy vegetarian." He settled on the word "vegan," which was simply the beginning and end of the word "vegetarian." He founded the British Vegan Society with some like-minded individuals and launched the vegan movement. In a 2002 interview, Mr Watson had this to say when asked about a message to other vegans:

"Take the broad view of what veganism stands for – something beyond finding a new alternative to scrambled eggs on toast or a new recipe for Christmas cake. Realize that you're on to something really big, something that hadn't been tried until sixty years ago, and something which is meeting every reasonable criticism that anyone can level against it. And this doesn't involve weeks or months of studying diet charts or reading books by so called experts - it means grasping a few simple facts and applying them."

This sounds simple and, frankly, liberating. However, being a vegan in a non-vegan world is hard work, requires constant vigilance, and can be isolating. In that same interview, Mr. Watson was asked about the most difficult part of being a vegan and he stated that it was "the social aspect-excommunicating [himself] from that part of life where people meet to eat." That word, "excommunicate," is powerful. Mr. Watson went on to say that the only remedy for that problem was for the concept to become more and more accepted until it one day became the norm.

These days, the label "vegan" can mean many things to many people. Some people hear the word "vegan" and picture a radical activist who would kill a man to save a chicken. Others define vegans as self-righteous and pretentious cult-followers who have lost their grip on reality. The American Vegan Society carries the motto "Ahimsa Lights the Way" and takes a bit more of a structured approach than that which Mr. Watson seemed comfortable with. Or maybe they just spent a little more time defining it. It is hard to say. "Ahimsa," by the way, simply means "refraining from harming any living being," which is nice to know, as I never really gave the word much thought and had been turned off by the new-age images it conjured in my mind.

I think, for now, I'm going to align myself with the father of the movement and adopt the philosophy of the British Vegan Society, which says that "veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose." I added the italicized emphasis to highlight the fact that veganism is much more of a journey than a destination. For now, I'm going to be an aspiring vegan, which means that I am going to "aspire to seek." The real key to a comfortable and successful vegan journey is going to be to figure out what the phrase "as far as possible and practicable" means to me. That will take some reflection.

In the coming weeks and months, I'm going to try to come up with some relatively defined guidelines on the issues that I find the most difficult and troubling: what to do with animal products I already own, how to handle restaurants and dining with friends, where to draw the line (honey, silk, wool, refined sugar, beer and wine, etc.). Hopefully, I will settle in a little more and find a way to appropriately balance this lifestyle choice against the realities of a 21st century existence.

On a related note, my wife made vegan pancakes this morning from the cookbook Vegan YumYum, which was a birthday present from my brother-in-law (read his blog on similar concepts here). I think I could tell the difference, but I don't care. I'll pass on some advice from Lauren Ulm, who wrote Vegan YumYum to tell you why: "[T]ake the time to learn how to make foods that you really love, not poor imitations of foods you no longer eat. That's the secret to being vegan and loving it."

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